Citrus in Ascent

Citrus season in California is finally getting ready to hit its stride.

The navel orange harvest started earlier than usual this year, but because of warm weather in the growing area around Bakersfield, the fruit hasn't been as good as it should be.

Citrus needs warm days and cool nights, says Jonathan Roberts, orange varietal manager for Sunkist. For much of October, it got only the warmth.

"The fruit just doesn't flavor up and doesn't color up without some cool weather," Roberts says. More recent temperatures have been on target. "With cooler nights, the fruit gets that acidity it needs to balance the sweetness. We're ready to go this week."

Because of the lack of color and flavor, a lot of packers have sent oranges into storage to develop. That shortage has driven prices up 10% to 15% above normal for this time of year.

Growers may have a hard time maintaining this pricing for the rest of the year. The Department of Agriculture is projecting a record harvest for many varieties of citrus this year, including oranges and grapefruit. The USDA predicts 12.4 million tons of oranges, 5% more than the record 1979-'0 harvest, and slightly more than 3 million tons of grapefruit. The increase will come from Florida; the California harvest will be slightly smaller than usual.

It's simple to pick out good oranges--or any citrus fruit for that matter. First, because the fruit is mostly juice, it must be heavy for its size. Second, scratch the peel and take a good sniff. The flavor of the fruit will be reflected in its perfume.

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